Victorian clothing brings historic Rothschild House to life

PORT TOWNSEND — Stepping over the threshold of the Rothschild House is like stepping into the past. Built in 1868 by a local merchant, the Washington State Parks-owned house — now a museum — remains practically unchanged from the days that Henry Rothschild and his family lived on the bluff overlooking the downtown waterfront and the bay filled with sailing ships from exotic ports.

Now, entering the Rothschild House is even more of an out-of-time experience.

“It’s like they’re here,” says Marsha Moratti.

Moratti, manager of the Jefferson County Historical Museum, attended the debut of the new textile exhibit at the Rothschild House, which is managed by the Jefferson County Historical Society.

Now through June, the exhibit offers a rare chance to see Victorian clothing worn in its original setting.

“It’s so rare to have a house museum with the things that were actually worn here,” Moratti says.

“Most historic houses are furnished with items from the period, but don’t have things that are original to the family and belong to the home.”

The Victorian clothing and accessories will only be on display a short time — old textiles are very fragile and susceptible to light damage, according to Laura Reutter, conservator of the Jefferson County Historical Museum.

They’ve been in storage since 2001, when Dorette Rothschild Lemon, granddaughter of Henry and Dorette Rothschild, donated the articles to the museum, according to Bill Roney, house manager.

Lemon is the daughter of the youngest Rothschild son, Eugene.

Now in her 80s, she inherited the outfits worn by her family from Emilie, her maiden aunt, who lived in the house until her death in 1954.

“It’s hard for us to date the clothes with certainty, but they certainly were worn here in this house for decades,” Roney says.

“Emilie didn’t like to change very much.”

The oldest piece in the collection is a brown silk evening gown from the 1880s that was probably worn by Lemon’s grandmother, Roney says.

It’s displayed in the downstairs sewing room, along with white stockings, striped ties and other accessories from the Victorian era.

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